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Russia raises prisoner swap as Griner arrives at penal colony; US says Russia not seriously negotiating

The United States' Brittney Griner (15) shoots over Japan's Maki Takada (8) during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Women's Basketball Final at Saitama Super Arena on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
November 21, 2022

Russian officials, once again, raised the prospect of a prisoner swap as detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner began her nine-year prison sentence at a penal colony on Thursday. While the Russian offers could raise hopes for Griner’s release, the U.S. State Department says Russia is not negotiating seriously.

Griner began serving a nine-year prison sentence at a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia Region on Thursday. The American basketball player received the sentence after she was arrested in Moscow in February after Russian authorities discovered hashish oil in her luggage, which is considered an illegal drug. The U.S. has designated Griner a “wrongfully detained” U.S. citizen

On Friday, the day after Griner arrived at the penal colony to begin her sentence, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov raised the idea of a prisoner swap between Russia and the U.S., Interfax first reported. Ryabkov raised the prospect of a swapping an unspecified U.S. prisoner in Russia for the release of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2012.

“I’d like to hope that the prospect [of Bout’s exchange] not just remains but also strengthens and the time will come when this prospect evolves into a specific agreement,” Ryabkov said. “The Americans are demonstrating certain foreign activity, and we are doing professional work through the designated channel. We have yet to arrive at a common denominator, but there is no doubt that Viktor Bout is among those discussed, and we are definitely counting on a positive outcome.”

The U.S. and Russia have gone back and forth for months on the idea of trading Bout for Griner. TASS reported on the possibility of such a prisoner swap in May. The Biden administration acknowledged making a “substantial offer” for Griner’s release in July and TASS once again raised optimism about Griner’s release in August.

In October, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre again said the Biden administration had submitted a “substantial offer” for the release of Griner and another American detained in Russia, Marine veteran Paul Whelan. Jean-Pierre said the Russia side would “need to make a serious counteroffer.”

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel criticized the Russian side’s negotiation efforts during a press conference on Friday. After being asked to address Ryabkov’s latest comments about a potential prisoner swap, Patel said the U.S. side has repeatedly tried to reach an agreement but “the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith.”

Patel again said the U.S. side had made a “substantial offer” for Griner, but said “the Russian Government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channels — or any other channel for that matter — runs counter to its public statements.”